Outside of academia, almost everyone assumes that the money I get in my pay-packet before the deduction of taxes is, in some morally significant sense, ‘mine’.
This assumption, although almost universal, is demonstrably confused. There is no serious political theory according to which my pre-tax income is ‘mine’ in any morally significant sense. Moreover, this matters: this confused assumption is a major stumbling block to economic reform, causes low and middle earners to vote against their economic interests, and renders it practically impossible to correct the economic injustices that pervade the modern world.
… Your gross, or pre-tax income, is the money the market delivers to you. In what sense might it be thought that you have a moral claim on this money? One answer might be that you deserve it: you have worked hard and have done a good job, and consequently you deserve all your gross income as recompense for your labour. According to this line of reasoning, when the government taxes, it takes the money that you deserve for the work you do.
This is not a plausible view. For it implies that the market distributes to people exactly what they deserve for the work that they do. But nobody thinks a hedge-fund manager deserves many times more wealth than a scientist working on a cure for cancer, and few would think that current pay ratios in companies reflect what philosophers call desert claims. Probably you work very hard in your job, and you make an important contribution. But then so do most people, and the market distribution of wealth patently does not reward in proportion to how hard-working people are, or how much of a contribution they make to society. If we were just focusing on desert, then there is a good case for taxation to correct the amoral distribution of the market.
… Left-libertarian theories leave considerable latitude for the state to alter the distribution of wealth, perhaps through taxation, if some take more than their fair share of natural resources. Crucially, the claims of future generations must also be taken into account, leading naturally to an inheritance tax (or at least restrictions on the right to bequeath) to ensure that each future individual has a fair share of natural resources.
The second requirement – the denial of equal rights over the natural world – is particularly implausible, and something I’ve never seen any justification of from Right-wing libertarians. On the Right-wing libertarian view, it is perfectly morally acceptable for one person to claim a vastly unequal proportion of land and resources for himself, resulting in his propertyless neighbours being forced to work for him to avoid starvation. By what right can the natural world be appropriated in this way? It is one thing to say that one has exclusive natural rights over oneself, but how can we justify exclusive natural rights over the natural world? And if it can’t justify this, Right-wing libertarianism falls at the first hurdle.
Moreover, as I will now try to show, even if Right-wing libertarianism is true, even if there are natural property rights, even if such rights allow private individuals to carve off for themselves a vastly unequal share of natural resources, even then we cannot make sense of the idea that actual people living today have a moral claim on their pre-tax income.
The reason is that the world that Right-wing libertarianism theorises about is a very different one to the world we live in today. (It is no accident that Nozick’s 1974 book is called Anarchy, State and Utopia.) According to Right-wing libertarianism, the market distribution of wealth is morally significant because it is the distribution that respects the voluntary choices people have made with the property to which they have a natural right. But this is the case only if the market is perfectly free, ie if the state has no influence on the distribution of wealth. Yet there are very few countries in the world in which this is the case. In almost every country, there is a certain amount of taxation, at least to pay for roads and infrastructure, if not for education and healthcare. But even the smallest such state intervention entails that the market distribution of wealth no longer reflects the free choices of citizens, and hence by the lights of Right-wing libertarianism the citizens of these countries have no moral claim on their pre-tax income.
The point can be made clearer with some examples. Consider a Professor Schmidt, a Right-wing libertarian academic working in a German university, who is very annoyed about the state taking 42 per cent of ‘her’ income. Where did her salary come from? Well, German universities are publicly funded, and so Schmidt’s salary comes from general taxation, from the money the German state forcibly extracted from its citizens. But according to Right-wing libertarianism, this is an immoral state action that infringes the natural rights of its citizens; in effect, it steals from people to pay Professor Schmidt. It follows that Professor Schmidt has no right to her salary, and hence no right to complain that the state lets her have only 58 per cent of this stolen money.
Perhaps some radical libertarians will gleefully agree with me that professors who leech off the state have no right to resent taxation. But the point applies quite generally, although in a more subtle way. Now consider a Ms Jones, a libertarian British businesswoman who resents paying tax on dividends from her lucrative company. Although she is not directly paid by the state, the profits generated by Jones’s business are dependent on many things that are funded by the state: perhaps she receives state subsidies, but even if not, certainly the success of her company will depend on infrastructure, roads, rule of law, and an educated and healthy workforce. It doesn’t matter whether in principle these things could have been provided privately; in reality, they are provided by the state and funded through taxation. According to Right-wing libertarianism, these things were paid for by theft, and hence Jones has no right to the profits thus generated.
In theory, Right-wing libertarianism does entail that people have a moral claim on their pre-tax income, and hence that taxation is theft, but only in hypothetical societies where there is zero or minimal state interference in the economy. In states in which the government intervenes in the economy through taxation – ie, in almost every developed state – market transactions are tainted and so are morally void. The Right-wing libertarian is perfectly entitled to campaign for the day when her minimal-government Utopia is brought about, but until that day she cannot consistently argue that she has a right to her pre-tax income, and hence cannot consistently complain that the government is taking what is hers by right.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that the gross income figure on your payslip represents your money, and that the difference from your take-home pay represents how much the state has taken from you. In fact, there is no coherent way of justifying this conviction. Even if the most radical forms of Right-wing libertarianism are true, it remains the case that you have no special moral claim on your gross income.
Still, the vast majority happily vote for low taxes, rejoicing that they get to keep their morsel while in reality all they’ve done is protect the spoils of a tiny minority at the top. The result is our failure to create what we really need: a tax system that – as part of the wider economy – creates a just society.
Desde el punto de vista de lo deseable, habría que plantearse por qué necesitamos un mundo donde para que las personas vivan tienen que pedir que las contraten, sabiendo que muchas caerán, serán expulsadas del trabajo o no lo tendrán nunca.
Lo lógico sería crear una sociedad donde todo el mundo pudiese trabajar, donde el paro no fuese una amenaza. Donde no hubiera prácticamente diferencias salariales, excepto en los trabajos más duros. Si a nadie le apetece estar limpiando baños, ese trabajo deberá estar mejor pagado. A todo el mundo le puede apetecer dirigir Repsol una temporada, no entiendo por qué hay que valorar eso más. Quizá lo idóneo fuera que los peores trabajos rotasen de tal modo que nadie tuviera que estar haciendo algo que no quiere durante cuarenta años o más de su vida.
… Google está dirigido por un mecanismo muy poco inteligente: la máxima rentabilidad, la caída de la tasa de ganancia. Un mecanismo que está dispuesto a destruir el medio que le permite vivir.